Religious people may have a whole new reason for joy in their lives: A study has found evidence that spirituality might help protect the human brain against depression.
“Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this,” Dr. Myrna Weissman, one of the study’s authors and a psychiatry and epidemiology professor at Columbia University, told Reuters. “The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods.”
In an article published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal on Dec. 25, the researchers explained that the cortex, the brain’s outer layer, may hold some keys to combating depression.
“A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression, possibly by expanding a cortical reserve that counters to some extent the vulnerability that cortical thinning poses for developing familial depressive illness,” reads an abstract for the study.
This basically means that those who were at high risk — but who said that religion or spirituality were important in their lives — generally had a thicker cortex than those at high risk who did not care as much about religion or spirituality.
It’s just one study, and shows only a correlating — not a causal — relationship between spirituality and depression risk. Still, it suggests that faith could be a factor in protecting some people who might be at increased risk of depression, though it doesn’t offer evidence that a thicker cortex actually leads one to be more likely to embrace faith or religion.
“Importance of religion or spirituality, but not frequency of (church) attendance, was associated with thicker cortices in the left and right parietal and occipital regions, the mesial frontal lobe of the right hemisphere, and the cuneus and precuneus in the left hemisphere, independent of familial risk,” the study’s abstract continued. “In addition, the effects of importance on cortical thickness were significantly stronger in the high-risk than in the low-risk group, particularly along the mesial wall of the left hemisphere, in the same region where we previously reported a significant thinner cortex associated with a familial risk of developing depressive illness.”
As Reuters noted, this research comes after these same experts previously found that people who claimed to be spiritual or religious had a lower risk of depression. They also found that people at higher risk for depression had thinning cortices when compared to those with lower risk.
To obtain the latest results, researchers asked 103 adults aged 18 to 54 about the importance of religiosity or spirituality in their lives; they were also asked how often they attended church over a five-year period. Participants’ brains were also analyzed to look at the thickness of the cortices.
Participants were children or grandchildren of people who had participated in the earlier study on depression.
Read more about the results here.